Homeless man’s death stirred a furor

May 14, 2012

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — Those who don’t understand why Fullerton residents are about to recall three of their city councilmen on June 5 ought to spend 33 minutes watching the videotape that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas released of Fullerton police officers confronting and then beating an unarmed homeless man named Kelly Thomas, who died from the crushing injuries.

The black-and-white surveillance tape caught the horrifying July confrontation in vivid detail, and anyone who can get through it without crying or feeling nauseated is an insensitive person indeed. We see a large officer, Manuel Ramos, responding to reports of someone breaking into cars at the city bus depot, approach the scraggly Thomas. Thomas gives him some lip, but doesn’t act in a threatening way.

Ramos puts on what the district attorney has called a “show,” as he slowly slips on latex gloves, twirls his baton and then says, “[S]ee my fists … these fists are going to f— you up.” Another officer comes in and starts swinging a baton at Thomas, who cries out in pain. As the D.A. explained, a third officer, Jay Cicinelli, uses a Taser to shock Thomas and then hammers him in the face with the blunt end of the Taser, as Thomas’ blood pooled on the ground. Other officers arrive later in the struggle and pile on to Thomas, who repeatedly yells, “I can’t breathe,” and “Daddy.”

A judge watched the tape and listened to three days of testimony this past week before ordering Ramos and Cicinelli to stand trial, the former for second-degree murder and the latter for involuntary manslaughter. As Rackauckas told the judge during the preliminary hearing, the officers “crushed the life out of” Thomas. Ramos, the D.A. said, “turned a routine encounter into a brutal beating death.”

So, what about the recall? Why blame police cruelty on councilmen Dick Jones, Pat McKinley and Don Bankhead? The answer is obvious. After this gruesome event, when many Fullerton residents were consumed by anger and demanded answers, their leaders failed them. The police chief took vacation, then went on disability leave, and then retired.

That left the council to take charge. Two council members, Republican Bruce Whitaker and Democrat Sharon Quirk, called for openness and demanded investigations. But the three others, the majority, denied the obvious, defended the officers and joined in a disinformation campaign.

Insensitive

It was bad enough that the Fullerton Police Department was putting out false information (i.e., claiming that officers suffered broken bones after a supposedly brutal fight with Thomas), but here’s what Mayor Jones said, which is as insensitive as it is idiotic: “I’ve seen far worse injuries that are survivable. I don’t know why he died.” Thomas, 37 and mentally ill, was physically fine, then was beaten to a pulp — something now undeniable, thanks to the video — and these city “leaders” couldn’t figure out what killed him.

Furthermore, the three councilmen opposed releasing the video to the public. They backed the department and ran from questions. McKinley, a former Fullerton police chief who hired the officers involved in the beating, wanted to keep the officers on the street during the death investigation. These three didn’t seriously question the police department, which confiscated the cameras of bystanders who witnessed the altercation, and allowed the officers to watch the video and get their stories straight before giving their testimony to investigators.

Jones referred to the peaceful citizens of his city who were protesting the Thomas death and the way the authorities handled it as the equivalent of a “lynch mob.” Can you understand the frustration?

“The community was crying out in anger,” said Fullerton businessman and blogger Tony Bushala, who is leading the recall movement. “They wanted leadership. Not only did Mayor Jones and councilmen Bankhead and McKinley fail to lead, but they joined with those who downplayed this horror. They tried to cover it up and circle the wagons. Their actions were cowardly.”

Scandals

Prior to the Thomas case, Fullerton’s police department had been beset by recent scandals, including officers accused of theft, illegal drug use and even having sex in a squad car. As someone who has covered police-abuse issues, I’ve seen the same thing play out — officials obfuscate and protect the officers, no matter the circumstances. Their unions protect the officers. The police department releases only that information that supports its side.

District attorneys don’t often prosecute such cases, but kudos to Rackauckas for being a leader in this situation. But it’s crucial to understand the depth of failure provided by those three council members who refused to live up to the responsibility vested in them. A recall — especially given the city’s mismanagement on other issues — is an admirable way for the public to issue a vote of no confidence.

Jones, Bankhead and McKinley have been advocates for eminent-domain-abusing, tax-squandering redevelopment projects throughout downtown Fullerton. They have failed to rein in pension costs. McKinley is a pension-abuse poster child, a double-dipper who receives $215,000 a year. All three men defended a water tax that has been ruled illegal, with McKinley complaining about “knee jerk” efforts to return the money to the public.

These are solid recall rationales. Admirably, the recall effort is remarkably nonpartisan — the replacement candidates come from across the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, the Orange County Register’s Editorial Board didn’t fully support this heart-felt political revolt, as it argued, “The citizens who voted [the three councilmen] in and now are disgruntled should vote them out during a regular election cycle.” The Register had no such qualms about backing the recall in 2003 of Gov. Gray Davis, for similar lack-of-leadership reasons.

The release of the video reinforces the wisdom of the recall. A recent news article explained that “legal experts caution that the footage doesn’t tell the entire story,” but we don’t need experts to tell us the truth, now obvious to anyone who can access YouTube. And we don’t need experts to tell Fullerton voters what to do about three councilmen who acted in a craven and unconscionable way.

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  1. Beelzebub
    Beelzebub 14 May, 2012, 10:11

    I’ve been reading your stuff for a long, long time, Mr. Greenhut. The large majority of it I agree with. We have some major differences of opinions on some topics but, by and large, you offer good sensible, logical, reasonable and well thought-out viewpoints.

    In all the years that I’ve read your articles and blogs – I walked away with more respect for you after reading this one than any of the others. You must have thought long and hard before you confronted the current OC Register Editorial Board since the people who work there are, no doubt, your friends and colleagues. And your articles still get published there routinely on a weekly basis. I was totally impressed that you would call them out on their take on the Kelly Thomas murder and it’s prosecution. Many of us have lost our faith in mainstream journalism. And we know that in journalism, as in law enforcement, friends and colleagues rarely turn on one another. Most would ignore their own internal moral codes in favor of maintaining good relations with those who provide moral support and help protect their livelihood. We know that ‘free speech’ really does not apply in the boardrooms. Often, there are consequences for going against the grain. You did not abandon your own convictions that you’ve expressed and held dear over the years. You could have easily remained silent on the matter. You didn’t. You threw an editorial haymaker from ground level at your fellow journalists – and connected I might say. And, quite honestly, I’m in awe.

    God bless you, man.

    Reply this comment
  2. Claire Voyance
    Claire Voyance 14 May, 2012, 13:20

    The worst incident of police brutality in the History of the United States.

    Reply this comment
  3. Chief661
    Chief661 14 May, 2012, 13:30

    Thank you for bringing this out and keeping it public. It is because of incidents like this, which, sadly, are too frequent, that have changed the way I see PD and which gives rise to my fear that we are very close to a true police state. Some may not like to hear this but the underlying reasons for this are affirmative action with the result that we lowered the standards for hiring of recruits, and for the continued militarization of our police agencies. While generalizing is not necessarily fair, IMHO, MANY PD have morphed into standing armies and are no longer worthy of the respect they demand and/or will too readily beat out of someone who incurs their wrath. There is a term called contempt of cop, it is an offshoot of contempt of court, i.e. if you are bold enough to challenge them you can expect a good beating for this offense. You can say they have a tough job; granted they do, but in the old days the persons hired were chosen and trained how to interact with public without resorting to deadly, or even less-than-deadly force. No longer. None of their actions make you any safer, if someone tells you it does, they lie. If these thugs are not severely punished, it will only reinforce their criminal behavior.

    Reply this comment
  4. Beelzebub
    Beelzebub 14 May, 2012, 15:59

    “Some may not like to hear this but the underlying reasons for this are affirmative action with the result that we lowered the standards for hiring of recruits, and for the continued militarization of our police agencies”

    It goes much deeper than that, Chief. With a GED being an acceptable educational entry standard in local law enforcement – many departments hire their friends and relatives to fill the spots. It’s an easy way for a high-school grad to make well over $100k a year and retire @ age 50-55 and bypass college completely. So you can’t blame it all on women and minorities. Fullerton didn’t have to hire a white one-eyed cop. I suspect the FPD brass did it as a favor to some big mucky-muck at LAPD. And look how that turned out. Most of the cops I see who get in trouble are lily white males – who are not entitled to affirmative action. So I think your theory has lots of holes in it.

    “There is a term called contempt of cop, it is an offshoot of contempt of court, i.e. if you are bold enough to challenge them you can expect a good beating for this offense”

    I agree completely, Chief. And it is not only tolerated. It’s encouraged.

    “You can say they have a tough job; granted they do, but in the old days the persons hired were chosen and trained how to interact with public without resorting to deadly, or even less-than-deadly force”

    I knew many old timer cops. They could run circles around these modern cops and they rarely had to pull their weapons from the holsters. They’re best weapons were their mouths and their demeanors that commanded respect. Many modern cops cannot maintain their cool in stressful situations and go for their guns or tasers before talking down a suspect. They are not suited for police work. But that goes back to friends hiring friends, doesn’t it??

    “If these thugs are not severely punished, it will only reinforce their criminal behavior”

    Ditto.

    Reply this comment
  5. Claire Voyance
    Claire Voyance 16 May, 2012, 22:43

    The problem is simple: California Peace Officers Bill of Rights

    NO TRANSPARENCY, NO ACCOUNTABILITY

    Read the shocking results of transparency in Florida

    Herald-Tribune [Florida] Investigation: Unfit for Duty

    Part 1:
    “The Herald-Tribune examines how Florida police officers can stay on the job despite multiple complaints, crimes”
    Link: http://cops.htcreative.com/

    Part 2:
    “Case Studies of Officer Misconduct”
    Link: http://cops.htcreative.com/Narrative

    Reply this comment
  6. Beelzebub
    Beelzebub 17 May, 2012, 07:41

    That deathbed photo of Kelly Thomas is so horrendous and self-explanatory. The fact that 6 officers were responsible for that (failing to stop it demonstrated complicit approval) with only 2 charged points to the underlying INJUSTICE that the leaders of our society promote. Again, this is more of the slippery slope that I often refer to. We are really not that far away from being Esterwegen, Germany > 1940.

    Reply this comment
  7. Wholetruth2012
    Wholetruth2012 20 May, 2012, 16:46

    The OC DA deserves a best actor award for his dramatics and feigned emotion.  He has sunk to a new low using his power to advance his political ambitions at the expense of two officers who were dealing with a rapidly escalating situation with a person who was known (by his family) to be very violent.  His own mother had a restraining order filed against him.  It is well known that he once physically attacked his grandfather.  His father when contacted by local police would say that he (Kelly) was their problem now.

    When Ramos says, “See these fists, They’re getting ready to f— you up,” he ALSO says, “iF YOU DON’T F-ING START LISTENING.”. Something that the DA likes to omit when miss quoting Ofc. Ramos.
    Another thing the DA and now the media so conveniently neglect to include is Thomas’ response, “START PUNCHING DUDE.” 
    Does that sound like someone who is in fear for his life?
    Even RonThomas admits to using force with Kelly, 
    “Ron once used his jujitsu skills to apprehend his son, wrestling Kelly into his car from a Yorba Linda park using wristlocks. “A lot of things I did with Kelly were very painful. But what are the alternatives?” -Orange Coast Magazine, March 2012

    Reply this comment

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